Former CIC, ICs join chorus against RTI bill

Former CIC Wajahat Habibullah

Former chief information commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah and six other ex-information commissioners (ICs) on Wednesday described the government’s move to amend the RTI Act as a “direct attack” on the autonomy of information commissions. They urged the government to withdraw the “regressive” amendments.

Along with Habibullah, former information commissioners Shailesh Gandhi, Sridhar Acharyulu, Deepak Sandhu, M M Ansari, Yashovardhan Azad and Annapurna Dixit addressed a press conference and condemned the passage of the bill in the Lok Sabha, saying it targets people’s fundamental right to know.

The bill empowers the government to decide on the tenure and salary of information commissioners across the country as against the existing provisions in the Act which give a fixed tenure of five years. It also reduces the status enjoyed by the chief information commissioner and information commissioners, who were on a par with Supreme Court judges and high court judges at central and state levels respectively.

Emphasising that there was “no reason” for the amendment, as salary and tenure have not been a point of contention, Habibullah said, “If at all any amendment is to be brought, it should be to make the information commission a constitutional body. The government deciding the salary and tenure will beholden commissioners to the government and create apprehensions in their minds.”

Shailesh Gandhi said the government has given “no plausible reason” for bringing amendments and rejected contentions that the RTI Act had anomalies. “The RTI Act, before being passed in 2005, was referred to a standing committee which had several BJP MPs. In fact, the current President Ram Nath Kovind was also a member,” he said.

Noting that the RTI Act came through a social movement, Deepak Sandhu said the government failed to hold any pre-legislative consultation on the RTI Amendment Bill and demanded that it be referred to a select committee to enable public consultation.

Yashovardhan Azad noted that the bill was a “clear attempt” by the government to control the tenure and salary of information commissioners and it would most probably lead to a “downgrade”.

“If the amendments pass and the government has powers to fix the salary and tenure of commissioners through rules, a situation could arise where different commissioners will have different tenures and salaries,” he said.

Questioning government’s commitment to the Act and transparency, he said the failure to appoint information commissioners in a timely manner was leading to more pendency.

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